Burundians woke up early Wednesday to cast their secret ballots at different polling centres across the country as they seek to elect the next president.
Today is a culmination of 30 days of intense campaigns by seven candidates seeking to replace President Pierre Nkurunziza that has been at the helm for 15 years. He has already secured a lucrative retirement package worth U$500,000, a house and lifetime salary.
Campaigns have been marred by untold levels of extreme violence that comprises of kidnap, torture and killing supporters of opposition parties. By the end of campaigning on Monday, there were more than 260 arrests reported by Burundian human rights groups and media, and more than 200 by the CNL.
Campaigns also kicked off without adhering to anti #COVID-19 measures despite confirmed cases continuing to rise. By Monday, official total number of #COVID-19 cases announced had reached 42 people, one of them has died.
Burundi Security Minister Gen. Alain Bunyoni has warned voters to not get near where votes counting will be taking place. This means despite ignoring social distancing during campaigns, Police will now start enforcing social distancing measures.
Vote counting and general mood at polling centres are subject to stringent measures instituted by the government.
The president of the electoral body-CENI (Independent Electoral Commission) has warned local and foreign observers –they are strictly prohibited from using mobile phones and taking photos inside polling stations.
Experts privy with internal dynamics in Burundi government say the recent expulsion of expatriates and blocking of East African Community election observers plus the tight restrictions at polling stations could be part of the grand scheme to rig votes in favour of the ruling party.
According to Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI), the Imbonerakure– a ruling party’s armed youth militias are poised to facilitate the rigging scheme. They have been documented in several killings of members of the main opposition party, the CNL.
“There is a shocking inertia by international actors,” said Lane Hartill from BHRI.
“How many more people have to be beaten to death or locked up arbitrarily before governments wake up and take action? It will be much harder to put the brakes on the violence after the elections,” Hartill said Monday.
Evidence on ground shows that there are deadly clashes between members of opposition party CNL and ruling party the CNDD-FDD. Both parties have been in the bush as rebels before- the CNL still commands a large support base both inside the country and outside where it has armed militants.
CNL and the CNDD-FDD can be considered to have a 50/50 support of the voters but the ruling party is armed with a youth militia and all state resources on its side. This causes wide mistrust between the two political camps because each side is capable of staging a tough resistance that could precipitate into the worst scenario.
Gen. Évariste Ndayishimiye is on the ballot representing the CNDD-FDD party. He is a former rebel combatant who headed Burundi’s ruling party since mid-2016.
Agathon Rwasa is the leader of CNL party and former leader of National Liberation Forces rebel group. He now wants to be president of the Republic of Burundi after these polls but says there are plans by the current government to rig today’s elections.
There are fears that anything can happen should the voting be disturbed by either side of these main rival parties.
“Already 490 cadres and activists of our party imprisoned, including 80 in the province where Rwasa was born [Ngozi]. A dozen have been murdered, others have been tortured and more than 80 of our offices have been destroyed,” Rwasa said.
With the situation so tense, the African Union Commission and the Secretariat of the United Nations on the elections in Burundi have cautioned President Nkurunziza’s government against intimidation and violent clashes between supporters of opposing sides.
“The defense and security forces and state-owned media should fully contribute to preserving a stable and peaceful environment, pre-requisite for free, inclusive, fair, transparent and credible elections in Burundi,” the two organisations said in a joint communiqué.
In order to preserve peace, security and stability in Burundi, the two organisations call on all political parties to strictly abide by the Code of Conduct they signed on 23rd December 2019.
The African Union Commission and the Secretariat of the United Nations call upon the Burundian authorities to safeguard the health of its citizens by putting in place preventive measures against the threat of the #COVID-19 pandemic.